December 2012

Monthly Archive

The most important public face of specialty coffee today

Posted by on 26 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Beans, Café Society, Consumer Trends

The specialty coffee industry has a strangely ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the mainstream. On the one hand, it thrives on an independent spirit rooted in independent businesses, an artisinal “craftsman” approach, an often bristling indifference to its customers, and it eschews much of anything that smells like the status quo (the stereotypes about things like sleeve tattoos and body piercings are hardly an anomaly).

And yet specialty coffee is also desperate for public approval, acceptance and validation, with many in the industry applauding virtually any public mention of decent coffee in the general media, coveting a rightful place in the pantheon of food television’s popular glow, and even going so far as to be willingly (and eagerly) exploited by TED. (And don’t get us started on the resulting Coffee Common star chamber charade.) This makes specialty coffee a bit like the high school social misfit that both publicly heaps scorn on the school’s popular cliques while secretly wishing to be a part of them.

Todd Carmichael prepares greens for an on-the-spot roast at origin on 'Dangerous Grounds'

Todd Carmichael prepares greens for an on-the-spot roast at origin on ‘Dangerous Grounds’

For the purposes of this post, we focus on the latter part: public visibility and legitimacy. And although the public mainstream today has had more than a few regular media exposures to the world of specialty coffee, the most effective and compelling by far has been Todd Carmichael’s recent Travel Channel TV program, Dangerous Grounds.

But Todd Carmichael is a *bleeeeep!*

Among some in the industry, this may seem heretical — if not unjustified. Highly respected, legendary professionals in the field such as Tom Owen (of home roasting Sweet Maria’s fame) have even created video parodies the show’s very concept — i.e., travel to coffee’s origins as a sort of danger sport — over a year ago and well before the show was even created. Others still see polar explorer and SCAA outsider Todd Carmichael, and his La Colombe Torrefaction coffee operations, as decidedly “pre-Third Wave” — akin to a shorthand for “don’t trust your coffee to anyone over 30”. (Five years ago Nick Cho, host and then of D.C. Murky Coffee fame, once publicly announced terminating his readership here for, among other things, a favorable post we made on La Colombe.)

However, over the years, specialty coffee has repeatedly proven itself incapable of speaking to layman consumers without trying to strong-arm them into first becoming like-minded professionals. This is a fundamental reason why Dangerous Grounds works: it hasn’t forgotten that good storytelling, even if embellished a bit, is at the heart of any legitimate mainstream media success.

Contrast an hour-long episode of Todd’s travels, trials, and tribulations with what the specialty coffee industry would otherwise celebrate as great video: sensory, stylized video montages/wannabe-TV-commercials that seem entirely designed to appeal to fellow coffee professionals. To the layman, these videos are unoriginal exercises in coffee navel-gazing — as utterly monotonous as the ubiquitous “hand-on-mouse” shots that dominated every 1990s TV show about the World Wide Web. You know it works when people who aren’t into coffee find the program entertaining, because the inconvenient truth is that video about coffee, like video about wine, is inherently boring.

Of Oliver Strand and Erin Meister

Which isn’t to say that video is the only way to bring the message of specialty coffee to the masses. Regular New York Times columnist Oliver Strand achieved a kind of patron saint status among the specialty coffee industry because a) his words were distributed in the nation’s preeminent newspaper, and b) he spoke cohesively about subjects the industry is frequently too tongue-tied to speak for itself. A rare case of a layman who reports on the specialty coffee world, industry blogs, coffee Web sites, and tweets alike eulogized the recent news of the demise of “Ristretto”, his occasional coffee column in the New York Times.

Contrary to some opinions in the specialty coffee world, Oliver Strand does put his pants on one leg at a time

Contrary to some opinions in the specialty coffee world, Oliver Strand does put his pants on one leg at a time

That said, despite good writing, Strand’s articles virtually never broke any new ground, proposed any original thought, nor provided an opinion. Of course you could say that a journalist’s core mission is to reveal the truth, regardless of opinion. But his stories typically consisted of news or trends that had been well-covered elsewhere on the Internet, often failing at the “new” part of the word “news”. As a result, and as coffee laymen ourselves, we almost never learned anything new from Ristretto. This unfortunately made Ristretto function a little more like specialty coffee’s society pages, where industry insiders wondered whether their name might feature or not in the latest edition.

A bit more of an industry insider, Erin Meister has worked in customer support for Counter Culture Coffee and has developed some of her own barista chops. She has posted coffee articles in a variety of publications, but she’s received most of her attention and accolades for her regular column at the Serious Eats Web site.

The first problem is in the Web site’s name: Eats. How can we take Serious Eats seriously about coffee when its very name excludes the subject matter? That’s like reading Men’s Health for tips on menopause. (Are you listening, Good Food Awards?)

But far more troubling is an editorial slant that seems focused on evergreen content designed for SEO rankings, with insipid article titles like “Our 5 Favorite TV Coffee Shops“, “5 Coffee Tattoos We Love“, and “5 Reasons to Hate Starbucks“. Although we’re sure Ms. Meister has no say in the copy-editing matter, it follows the old ladies’ home journal formula of the words “secrets” and “perfect” plus a numeral combined with warmed-over content that’s been posted on the Web 120,000 times prior. There’s also something creepy about reading articles written more for computerized Web crawlers than for actual humans.

Love it or hate it, this is specialty coffee’s most important public face

Todd Carmichael prepares to descend a zipline in search of coffee on 'Dangerous Grounds'

Todd Carmichael prepares to descend a zipline in search of coffee on ‘Dangerous Grounds’

By contrast, when it comes to Dangerous Grounds we do actually learn something new. Even just the legacy of Haitian coffee alone. Maybe survival tips in the jungles of Borneo aren’t very practical, but they are far from retreads — and the storytelling makes for good television. We’ll collaborate with you any time, Todd.

Curiously enough, all three personalities have had to confront the specialty coffee industry’s excesses of preciousness in recent times: Meister with barista attitudes (one of her best pieces of the past year), Strand berating industry pros for not even providing basic contact information in a speech at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup, and Carmichael’s rants against hipster coffee. That gives us strange comfort in knowing we’re not alone in trying to escape the dysfunction.


Trip Report: Caffè Pascucci, Indiranagar (Bangalore, India)

Posted by on 10 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Foreign Brew

The original Caffè Pascucci in India was something of an anomaly: it was a truly cosmopolitan location in the thick of Bangalore that also served things like pasta and wine. (Something even the San Francisco edition does not do.) Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. But for whatever reasons, it quickly spawned three other Caffè Pascucci locations in other Bangalore neighborhoods: Indiranagar, Jayanagar, and J P Nagar.

Located on a tree-lined, semi-residential street in Bangalore’s upscale Indiranagar neighborhood, this location doesn’t carry wine nor coffee merchandising (nor half the desserts on their menus). But they do have a lot of the other trappings of an international espresso bar. They sport an outdoor patio in front with café tables and chairs — just down from a sugar cane juice vendor who frequents the cricket grounds nearby.

Entrance to Caffè Pascucci, Indiranagar Inside Caffè Pascucci, Indiranagar

Inside they pump up the Western pop music amidst the classic black-and-red Pascucci motif: red and white leather chairs and loveseats, small café tables, and free WiFi. They also serve sandwiches and pastas.

Using a two-group Pascucci-branded Fiorenzato in the back, they pull shots in a Pascucci-branded glass cup with a healthy-looking medium-brown crema and a couple of lighter heat spots. It tastes a little more bitter than your typical Western espresso in India, but the body is solid. With a flavor of tobacco smoke and some cloves. At least when it comes to the coffee, it is a significant improvement over their original MG Road location. For a mere Rs 55 (about $1).

Read the review of Caffè Pascucci in Indiranagar, Bangalore, India.

Fiorenzato and service counter at Caffè Pascucci, Indiranagar Double espresso at Caffè Pascucci, Indiranagar


Back to the Grind: George Howell Coffee

Posted by on 05 Dec 2012 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

Despite the article’s cringe-laden writing, it was nice to see coffee legend George Howell getting a write-up in this month’s Boston Magazine: Back to the Grind: George Howell CoffeeBoston Articles.

Strike a pose with the pooch, George!If you don’t know who George Howell is, you may as well be drinking Maxwell House out of a dirty gym sock. His coffee legacy goes as far back as the 1970s where — in contrast to the industry drive for cheaper, more plentiful coffee at the time — George was a pioneer in selecting higher quality bean stocks and roasting them at different levels to bring out their finer qualities. He has old ties to Alfred Peet, of Peet’s Coffee & Tea fame, and the early days of Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz — who ultimately watered down much of everything he stood for.

In more recent years, George was the brainchild behind the Cup of Excellence competitions. Today he’s forging his own coffee vision in Boston now that his non-compete clauses have finally expired.

That said, Mr. Howell is no stranger to controversy either. It’s ironic that Mr. Howell rightly dismisses the overly precious treatment coffee has been given lately — including the frivolous nature of latte art competitions (something we dearly agree with). Because he is also credited with inventing the beverage that essentially gave birth to the coffee-flavored milkshake: the Frappuccino. (Btw, the name frappuccino is derived from frappé, which most people forget is actually a Greek word. After all, the Greeks really did invent everything — including the art of saying you invented everything.)

George is only missing the obligatory white labcoat for this shot of him with a vac pot

All of which is made much more difficult to appreciate given the article’s hackneyed and superficial writing. It’s a bit of a predictable paint-by-numbers magazine bio piece, right down to an opening description of Mr. Howell’s attire on the day — which, btw, included the incredibly relevant “button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet”. The article insufferably regurgitates the retold version of this “third wave” business as perpetrated by the many terrorist cells of Third Wave hijackers. It also so wrongly fashions coffee cupping into some elevated consumer ritual for appreciating coffee — as if it were a realistic analogue to wine tasting.

And in comparing the basic ratio math of the ExtractMoJo to “the precision of a nuclear physicist”, it smacks of that scientifically ignorant “Golly gee whiz, Wilbur, you must need a PhD in chemical engineering to operate that vacuum pot!” cluelessness. It’s more of that dumbing down of honest science and math in America that’s usually reserved for Hollywood movies. (Note: I often have the urge to bitch slap “A Beautiful Mind” director, Ron “Opie” Howard, for introducing the infamous “String Theory” movie trope of representing math or complexity through pegboards interconnected by string and thumbtacks.)

But don’t let all that stop you from reading it. Just keep an airsickness bag at the ready to get through it.